I have a clear, specific, and important goal for you. I intend to convince you that you are a leader.
You may not realize it. Many of you have never considered yourself in that light. You may even be in vehement disagreement.
“That’s not me. I don’t manage anyone. I don’t have any authority. I just do my job…”
You see, I’m not making a statement of fact based on what I know of you, or of what you do. After all, I don’t know you at all, so how could I?
I identify you as a leader because I believe you have the capacity to lead. You can become something more than you are today, no matter what that may be.
It is that capacity for leadership, that promise of what could be that I believe lives in every one of us.
If you don’t see in yourself the potential for leadership, ask yourself this: what if you are wrong? What might you achieve if your own limiting beliefs were removed? What might your life be like if you earned a new promotion, or finally struck out on your own leading your own business?
Some of you are reading this and thinking it may not apply to you. Before you move on to the next thing demanding your attention, consider this: are you the best leader you can be?
No, none of us can make that claim. We are nothing if not imperfect. Keep reading, and we’ll improve together.
Whether you hold any leadership authority or role that requires you to provide direction to others, there is one person you are always responsible for leading.
You may not have considered it in this light, but you are a team of one. The wearer of multiple hats, both worker and manager. When it comes to directing your life along whatever course it may take, you are the leader.
You alone are responsible for your own destiny. Believe in a higher power, or don’t. Attribute events to luck or fate, happenstance or plan, chaos, or providence. One thing remains true regardless of your belief system: if you want to walk a path, you have to move your feet.
How often do you think about the actions and behaviors you adopt in your life?
What do you eat? Do you look after your physical health? What about your mental health? We are what we feed ourselves, and that truth is not limited to food. Garbage in, garbage out as they say.
What about how you show up in the world and for the people that populate your circles? Do you strive to be punctual, or are you perpetually late? Are you as good as your word or known to be somewhat unreliable?
I’m sure you see where I am leading you here.
Leadership starts with taking an active role in how we direct our own lives. You should be the main character in your own story, not someone that plays a supporting role as if you are just along for the ride.
You must adopt the traits and practices that a leader should exhibit in your own life.
If you feel you are reasonably self-directed, evaluate the choices and actions you’ve made.
Ask yourself: Are you the leader you should be in your own life?
Leadership by Example
If you are an individual contributor, someone that doesn’t lead a team or project, you may not see yourself as a leader.
Think back to your childhood. I’m sure you never stole a cookie you weren’t supposed to have because it would spoil your dinner. But, did you know someone who would? Did they share the spoils with you, making you a willing accomplice?
Your friend, who was definitely not you, was not providing an example of positive leadership, but it was leadership.
You followed, and collectively you achieved a goal together.
Let’s examine something more positive.
Have you ever been walking through the park and seen trash laying on the ground? Did you pick it up and carry it to the nearest bin? Maybe you come across a fallen branch on a bike path. Do you stop to pull it to the side, or do you step over it and walk on?
Assume you clean up the trash or clear the trail. What does that show others about your character? You care about the environment you find yourself in. You are willing to spend your time and energy, making it better.
What about the people that observe you taking time out of your day to make these small improvements? Young or old, child or adult, they are impacted by your actions. Some may even be influenced to do more of the same.
You may not consider these simple actions to be leadership. Still, by your actions, you’ve introduced the potential for positive change that reaches beyond your own efforts.
That sounds suspiciously like leadership to me. Simple it may be, but often simple solutions are what is needed.
Intentional or thoughtless, our actions rarely go unnoticed. The tasks we complete or avoid are observed, evaluated, and cataloged by those around us. Those observations then work to inform and influence their own decisions and actions.
We lead by example whether we want to or not. This is equally true in our day to day actions as it is in the execution of our jobs or how we run our businesses.
We set an example that reflects our character. We demonstrate by our actions the behavior we believe to be correct or worthwhile.
And, that behavior impacts the world and people around us.
Ask yourself: Are you being the leader you should be as an example to others?
If you lead a team, you are quite obviously the textbook definition of a leader.
Or are you?
It’s not much of a stretch to find an example of people in positions of power that act more as stewards of that power without displaying any particular knack for or demonstration of leadership.
What’s the difference?
To be a manager, we must only achieve the successful execution of the tasks at hand. Those tasks may be varied and complex, even to the extent that they require a hierarchy of managers. Such is the structure of many businesses.
Management is a fundamental and essential role. One that cannot be ignored when tasks must be completed, the business must operate, and life must go on in an orderly fashion.
Leadership is something more.
If management ensures the execution of tasks, leadership identifies the right objectives to pursue.
If management reports on the key metrics that highlight performance, leadership defines the link between those metrics and the guiding vision.
If management provides for the necessary resources for operations, leadership connects those people to a sense of purpose that keeps them engaged and committed to success as a team.
Leadership is something more, and any of us who would aspire to be a leader must recognize that leadership means continual growth and change.
We can never stop improving, not should we want to.
Ask yourself: Are you the leader you should be as a model of growth and improvement?
You Are a Leader
Leadership occurs with or without our tacit approval, a grant of authority, or, sometimes, explicit recognition and understanding of its ebb and flow. Recognizing that and committing to being better than we were yesterday, better than we are today is the first step we must take. The first step to becoming a person that can confidently and affirmatively answer the question: Are you a leader?
Leadership starts with you.
This article is part of my 4-part series that answers the question: Where Does Leadership Start? If you enjoyed this content and want more from me, you can join my group of Intentional Leaders here.
Ready for more? Here’s article #2 of 4:
If you are ready to recognize yourself as a leader, you’ll want to read my book: You Are a Leader: Applying Military Leadership Principles to Professional Life.
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Matthew Overlund writes non-fiction and coaches professional development for new (or not so new) managers at Leadership & Vision, where he helps amazing people realize a higher potential as they evolve from getting things done to making things happen.
When he’s not writing, coaching, or generally masquerading as a code jockey, solutions architect, or product manager, Matt occasionally writes, thinks, reads, or talks about fiction — where understanding the characters on the page help him try to understand the characters in the world.